Believing and understanding

Yesterday I wrote about 3000 words on the limitations of the scientific approach as a tool for discerning truth. Today I’d like to focus on just 3 words:

Credo ut Intelligam

“I believe so that I may understand”

As I discussed in the last two posts, scientific inquiry is limited by definition to the material universe. Supernatural influence on the material, or events limited entirely to the supernatural sphere, are in principle inaccessible to science (thanks to its assumption of materialism). But because of what I observe, what I experience, and what my reason tells me, I cannot endorse materialism as a worldview. I accept its usefulness as a scientific premise, but I do not accept its truthfulness.

The Latin motto above was written by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109), who is regarded as the first scholastic philosopher of Christian theology. He held that belief in God is the only way to make sense of what we observe. Reason can expand on faith, but faith must precede reason.

Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, described the correct perspective of inquiry thus:

“Let us begin from God, and show that our pursuit from its exceeding goodness clearly proceeds from him, the Author of good and Father of light.” (Novum Organum)

As a contrast, let’s see how far materialism can take us. Peter Atkins, Oxford chemist and caustic-tongued atheist, believes that, “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.” Bertrand Russell described a common materialist position when he said:

“Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attainable by scientific methods, and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”

It is worth noting, however, that this extreme scientism is logically incoherent. It is itself not a statement of science but an article of blind faith. Thus by its own assertion we cannot know if it is true. (Note: I use the term “blind faith” because I believe that this statement describes a belief held in spite of evidence).

John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford, observes that scientism even denies the validity of any non-scientific fields such as philosophy, ethics, literature, poetry, art and music. He continues:

“Science can tell you that if you add strychnine to someone’s drink, it will kill her, but it cannot tell you whether it is morally right or wrong to put strychnine in your grandmother’s tea in order to get your hands on her property.” (“Challenges from Science” in Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias)

I would suggest that it is possible to have such knowledge of right and wrong, even though it is beyond the scope of science.

We must also note the difference in confidence which can be attributed to the findings of various scientific disciplines, because the scientific methodology relies on repeatability. Experimental sciences can often confidently deduce what is likely to happen under certain controlled conditions. Sciences which deal with unrepeatable phenomena (such as palaeontology and cosmology) are more deductive, and their conclusions must necessarily be less authoritative.

Even amongst these “historical” sciences, we can only proceed scientifically by simulating repeatability: we compare several independent fossil progressions; we draw analogues to living animals. We study hundreds of galaxies, trying to find common trends. We look at the operation of physics on an experimentable scale and extrapolate the findings to a cosmological scale. The philosophy is the same, although there are greater practical limitations to the experimental possibilities.


Natural law (and order)

C. S. Lewis, in his essay The Grand Miracle, gives a striking illustration of the conditional status of “laws of Nature”. As Nature is the field studied by science, this also illustrates the impossibility of using scientific inquiry to address the supernatural. In the passage, Lewis is in conversation with a materialist:

“Science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists – anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”

“But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the Laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them … I think the Laws of Nature are really like two and two making four. The idea of their being altered is as absurd as the idea of altering the laws of arithmetic.”

“Half a moment,” said I. “Suppose you put sixpence into a drawer today, and sixpence into the same drawer tomorrow. Do the laws of arithmetic make it certain you’ll find a shilling’s worth there the day after?”

“Of course,” said he, “provided no one’s been tampering with your drawer.”

“Ah, but that’s the whole point,” said I. “The laws of arithmetic can tell you what you’ll find, with absolute certainty, provided that there’s no interference. If a thief has been at the drawer of course you’ll get a different result. But the thief won’t have broken the laws of arithmetic – only the laws of England. Now, aren’t the Laws of Nature much in the same boat? Don’t they all tell you what will happen provided there’s no interference?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, the laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way – but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side – why, then, you won’t get what the scientist predicted.”

“No, of course not. He can’t allow for monkey tricks like that.”

“Quite, and in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered – then the events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. In one sense it wouldn’t break the laws of Nature. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere. I mean, it’s not the expert at arithmetic who can tell you how likely someone is to interfere with the pennies in my drawer; a detective would be more use. It isn’t the physicist who can tell you how likely I am to catch up a cue and spoil his experiment with the billiard ball; you’d better ask a psychologist. And it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.”

Note that I do not wish to undermine the value of scientific inquiry into Nature: I believe that it has great power to give insight into the natural order. But I think it should be obvious that science has important limitations in what questions it can reasonably address.

Once we head into the realm of the truly unrepeatable, we are studying history. And now we are truly off the scientific map.

Is it possible to have knowledge of historical events? Of course.

There are even ways to assess the relative confidence of historical knowledge, such as the extent and concordance of contemporaneous records, literary criticism of written accounts, archaeological confirmation of records and forensic examination of evidence.

Miraculous events are unique. That’s what marks them as miracles – they defy the natural order. But they do not contradict science, because as we have seen, science deals explicitly with the normal workings of Nature in the absence of super-Natural interference.

Lewis elaborates:

“This point of scientific method merely shows (what no one to my knowledge ever denied) that if miracles did occur, science, as science, could not prove, or disprove, their occurrence. What cannot be trusted to recur is not material for science: that is why history is not one of the sciences. You cannot find out what Napoleon did at the battle of Austerlitz by asking him to come and fight it again in a laboratory with the same combatants, the same terrain, the same weather, and in the same age. You have to go to the records. We have not, in fact, proved that science excludes miracles: we have only proved that the question of miracles, like innumerable other questions, excludes laboratory treatment.” (The Grand Miracle)



Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Overlap in the Magisterium?

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…


Seeing the gardener

Douglas Adams, in a line oft-quoted by atheists, wrote once:

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

The suggestion is that this accurately portrays the relationship between observation of nature and belief in a creator God. In fact, it is a useless and highly misleading straw man argument.

A belief in fairies would be akin to believing in Bertrand Russell’s flying teapot – we don’t have any proof that there isn’t a teapot orbiting Mars, so why don’t we believe in that too? Again, this is an atheist straw man which grossly misrepresents the Christian belief in God.



As John Lennox has pointed out, you are welcome to dismiss the idea of fairies, but it would be ridiculous to look at a beautiful garden and dismiss the idea of a gardener. And that is a more accurate reflection of the relationship between the God of the Christian faith and the created universe.

Sure, it’s possible that all the trees and flowers grew up from seeds that just randomly fell into perfectly arranged rows and patterns.

Maybe blind chance directed all the azaleas into one flower bed and all the petunias into another.

Perhaps it was purely mechanistic geological forces which directed the stones into a pattern which just happens to resemble a path.

We know that cows eat grass – maybe there was a herd of very light-footed cows that came and mowed the lawns – and just happened to nibble every blade to the same height. (After all, evolution seems to work on the micro scale, why not take it on blind faith that it works on the macro scale?)

Maybe all the apparent design is just an illusion.

But would this be reasonable?

My understanding of God makes sense of the universe that I see around me. The created order, to me, bears unmistakable hallmarks of its Creator.

Acknowledging the gardener makes sense of the beautiful garden that he has fashioned. Acknowledging the creator and sustainer of the Universe gives us insight into everything else we see. C. S. Lewis illustrated this perfectly when he wrote:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”



Related posts:

Chesterton on Nature

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

On reading both books


On reading both books

Last night a friend posed an interesting challenge to the question of whether science and religion can be properly reconciled. His issue was not with any particular theory, it was rather a challenge in principle to the notion that the immutable truth of God’s word could ever be fully reconciled with the continual change and adaptation of scientific theory. The Bible doesn’t change, but our understanding of the universe does – how can these be fully compatible? It’s an interesting question and a fresh take on the problem.

Francis Bacon, the founder of the modern Scientific Method, said that to understand the world we needed both books that God has provided: the Bible and the “book of Nature”. I mention this because it seems to me that it is in this duality of revelation that we find our answer.

When we first read a Biblical passage, it may be opaque or it may have immediately obvious meaning. But further study of the surrounding text and the context in which the passage was written will bring a deeper and fuller understanding. It is not dissimilar to science, where study in a particular field advances and builds on previous understanding. The Biblical text does not change, but our understanding of it does. Likewise, the underlying principles and workings of the universe do not (as far as we know) change, but our understanding of them grows with further study.


A multidisciplinary approach

Closely related is the issue of uniform literalism in biblical interpretation, so let’s consider that as well:

The study of the “book of Nature” (or ‘Science’, for short) is not limited to a single discipline. At the most basic level, there are different techniques for experimental science (e.g. chemistry, quantum physics) and for observational / historical sciences (such as palaeontology or cosmology). To even attempt to use the techniques from one discipline in another is often impossible. We understand that there are appropriate ways of assembling and analysing data and of testing hypotheses, and we limit our techniques to those appropriate to our field of study.

Similarly, the Bible is not limited to a single style of writing. But there are clearly sections of history, sections of poetry, and sections of philosophy. Sometimes these overlap: the opening chapters of Genesis in particular are a poetic presentation of some fundamental (and actually very radical) philosophy and theology. They describe the nature of the universe and God’s relation to it, and give a philosophical explanation of the human predicament as an inevitable outworking of free choice. It is not a scientific treatise in itself, but interestingly it does provide a foundation for viewing the world scientifically. It indicates that the universe was created and is ordered by God, who exists outside of the universe but also sustains it. Importantly, it says that the created universe is not divine and is not to be worshipped: instead, it can be studied.

Works like Chronicles, Samuel, etc – and most importantly for Christianity, the Gospels and Acts – are historical. They record literal events in history. Archaeology and literary analysis of various sources (including records of historians ambivalent or hostile towards Christianity) can be applied to the historical statements in these books, and their veracity can be demonstrated. The evidence for these books is relevant to how seriously we take them, and any honest evaluation of the evidence indicates that their historical accuracy is extraordinary.

But to look at a passage in Isaiah such as: “The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands”, and say, “Well, that cannot be literally true and thus the resurrection must also be just a fable,” indicates a gross misunderstanding of the material under study.


An unorthodox view

Reflecting on Galileo’s clashes with the scientific and religious establishments of his day (about which read more here), John Lennox observed the following:

“Ironically, it was Galileo, a believer in scripture, who correctly challenged the reigning scientific paradigm in the name of science. One important lesson is that those of us who take the biblical account seriously should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it. The biblical text just might be more sophisticated than we first imagined, and we might therefore be in danger of using it to support ideas that it never intended to teach.” (“Challenges from Science” in Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias)



Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

Believing and understanding

Seeing the gardener